I covered my first Daytona 500 in 1974, and over the ensuing 35-odd years – some odder than others – I made an annual pilgrimage to NASCAR’s Holy Land.
I haven’t been back since escaping the grind of daily journalism a few years ago, but every year about this time I get an itch – sort of like sand fleas in your swimming trunks.
Racing, like malaria, gets in your blood.
Some of my most enduring and endearing Daytona memories, heading into today’s 55th annual Great American Race:
• Dinner with the King: One night my Murfreesboro buddy Don Christopher – who traveled to Daytona with me every year as my technical advisor – and I were dining at an ocean-side restaurant when in strolled King Richard.
Richard Petty, whom I’d gotten to know during his races at Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway, walked over to our table to say hiddy. (That’s Petty-ese for “howdy.”)
I introduced him to Don, a life-long Petty fan, and they shook hands. Don didn’t wash his hand for months. He says that even now, many years later, it still occasionally tingles.
• Pearson’s grand entrance: One evening on another trip Don and I were perfecting our neon tans and telling war stories to a pair of Daytona debutantes when in walked David Parson – NASCAR’s Clark Gable. When the ladies spotted Pearson across the lounge they disappeared in a stampede of beehive hair-dos and white vinyl boots.
Don said he could imagine the story: “Innocent Bystanders Trampled by Debutantes.”
• Buried at Boot Hill: We always made a nostalgic pit stop at the infamous Boot Hill Saloon, a seedy downtown biker hangout popular with race fans and media during Speed Weeks. The joint is so rough, Don once noted, that they keep the toilet paper chained to the wall.
• Rainbow Eddie: A sports writer named Eddie invited a late-night lounge companion to his room after she volunteered to help him write a column.
Instead of engaging in literature, she hog-tied him and made off with his watch and wallet – but not before body-painting him head-to-toe. A bronze plaque today marks the spot where the famed Boar’s Head Lounge once stood, complete with an inscription commemorating “the Legend of Rainbow Eddie.”
• Brawl & blizzard: The 1976 Daytona 500 ended with the Allison brothers – Bobby and Donnie – slugging it out with Cale Yarborough in the muddy infield after Cale and Donnie wrecked each other. (As a footnote, Petty sailed past the fracas to win the race.)
On the way home that night Don and I became snowbound in Valdosta, Ga. – a first for that area, according to locals.
. Home boys make good: In 1989 Franklin’s Darrell Waltrip finally won the Daytona 500 and broke into an impromptu Icky Shuffle – setting dancing back at least 50 years.
In 1994 Columbia’s Sterling Marlin, a self-described farm boy, snapped a 17-year, 278-race losing streak by winning Daytona. Then he came back the next year and won it again.
• Caldwell stranded: My Nashville Banner cohort Joe Caldwell was in Daytona in 1998 when the Banner, without warning, folded. Caldwell’s wife called to break the news, and began by saying, “Joe, I hope they gave you a round-trip ticket …”
Losing Dale: Not every Daytona trip was fun and frolic. On the final lap of the 2001 race, Dale Earnhardt was killed when his car spun into the wall. The sport has yet to recover.
It was past midnight when I finally finished filing stories about the tragedy. Back at the motel Don was packed and waiting – we always headed home after the race.
Earnhardt and I were long-time friends, and Don had met Dale a few times while hanging out with me at press parties. Like most NASCAR fans, he admired him greatly.
It was a solemn ride home that night, traveling down a lonesome highway.
Daytona is a lot like life – as much fun as it can be, it doesn’t always have a happy ending.